Friday, January 25, 2013

222. Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Primo Levi's The Periodic Table (Penguin Books, 1975 (First Publication); 195), translated from Italian by Raymond Rosenthal, is largely a complex potpourri of autobiographical events, with two chapters of fiction. It details the life of the Chemist, Primo Levi, as he transitions from one period to another; from when race was unimportant to when one's name could get him to the gas chamber; from a mere boy with interest in chemistry to a graduate student in chemistry; from working as a chemist to fighting against the fascist government.

Divided into twenty-one different chapters, each chapter of the Periodic Table is titled after the name of an element of the periodic table. The book opens with Argon, a noble or inert gas common in the atmosphere and ends with Carbon, a common element found throughout the universe, the element we are made up of and what we become upon death. Primo uses these elements to narrate, sombrely, the story of his life, chronologically. Arrested for fighting against the government, he was sent to Auschwitz; however, his knowledge in chemistry saved him from death. He was later to meet, in a correspondence at least, one of the Nazi officers who had supervised his work at the laboratory.

All through, it is clear that this ingenious of a man lived for one thing: chemistry and its practical applications. However, the story also shows the frustrations of a man eager to prove himself, to show his worth, to achieve more, but strangulated and emasculated by the very society he finds himself in. This story is intelligently told and Primo's love for his for language shines through with entire paragraphs of brilliant phrases. All metaphors, analogies, similes, and philosophical observations are seen with a chemist's eyes and expressed through a chemist's mind using the profession's language. 
The course notes contained a detail which at first reading had escaped me, namely, that the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful, behaves, however, in a very different fashion when it is pure: then it obstinately resists the attack. One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions: the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life. [ Page 27/28]


  1. I have always wanted to read this book, and your review has inspired me to go ahead and get it from the library/bookshop. A nice concise look at the book. Great blog by the way.

    1. Thanks LS. It is an interesting book and you'll love it.

  2. Looks like an interesting book to fish for. Great review, anyway.

  3. A truly wonderful book that has drawn many people towards the periodic table from a humanistic direction. Reading and studying the 'real periodic table' can be equally rewarding. For resources see,


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